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Split Celebrations and My Thanksgiving Reading

thanksgiving weekend reading

Hooray, day off from work in the middle of the week!

Thanksgiving has turned into kind of a hit-or-miss holiday for me. I don’t get the day after Thanksgiving off as an official work holiday, and since we are a Saturday newspaper work needs to get done Friday so the paper gets printed and delivered on time.

This year I decided not to take Friday off, so it’ll be a bit of a split Thanksgiving celebration. We’re going over to a friend’s house for dinner today, then heading to the Twin Cities on Friday night to do Thanksgiving II with my family on Saturday. Then, a dear friend is getting ordained on Sunday afternoon, so we’re sticking around for that before heading back home. It should be a full, festive weekend… once I get done working!

But, I’m not thinking about that now. Today is a vacation meant for reading, food, friends and football. We’re not heading out for Thanksgiving dinner until about 3 p.m., so I’ve got all morning for books (and a short list of chores I’m hoping to get done before we’re out of town for the weekend). Here’s what’s on my list for the weekend:

  • Re Jane by Patricia Park –– I’ve been in the middle of this book forever. I’m not sure what’s taking so long, but I am determined to finish it today. I’m enjoying it a lot so far, so I doubt that will be a chore.
  • The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse by Piu Marie Eatwell — I swear, I’m going to stop buying new books soon. I ordered this one a few days ago and I’m kind of excited to hop in — that title is impossible to resist.
  • Get In Trouble by Kelly Link — The boyfriend and I needed some short stories on audio book for our drive, and this one came recommended when I asked for collections that were weird or a little dark.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends and readers. I hope you all have a wonderful day.


Nonfiction November 2015Hello, friends, and welcome to our final week of Nonfiction November, a month-long celebration of nonfiction hosted by myself, Leslie (Regular Rumination), Katie (Doing Dewey) and Rebecca (I’m Lost In Books).

Rather than a formal topic the last week of the month — which often gets busy as the holiday season gears up — we decided to spend this week focusing on a single book, I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb. Katie, this week’s host, has some discussion questions and a link up on her blog. For my post, I wanted to write a bit about ghostwriting and memoirs, something this book made me think a lot about.

i am malalaMalala Yousafzai’s story is, by this point, so well-known that she can go by her first name only. In October 2012, the fifteen-year-old was shot in the head by a Taliban operative on her bus ride home from school. Malala was targeted because of her outspoken advocacy – in conjunction with her father – for education, especially for young girls. A year after she was shot, she was the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Her memoir, I Am Malala, was published just a year after she was shot and was written in collaboration with journalist Christina Lamb – something I find really interesting. Lamb wrote a piece for The Sunday Times“My Year with Malala” – that discusses how she was hired to work on the book (a literary agent representing Malala approached her about the project) and a bit about her experience getting to know Malala and her family as they developed the memoir. As part of her work on the book, Lamb actually visited Pakistan, including the school Malala attended and the mountain villages where her parents, Ziauddin and Tor Pekai, grew up.

It seems like an incredible amount of work, yet clearly work that was needed – Malala’s story is powerful because it’s hers and because, as Lamb notes in her piece, it could be the story of many of the young women struggling to get an education across the world:  

Afterwards, when I chat to Malala’s classmates, tears spring to my eyes. All of them are so eloquent and passionate about schooling, even though some of them say their brothers would withdraw them from school at the first hint of any independent thought. One of her classmates says to me: “We could all have been Malala, but our parents wouldn’t have let us speak out publicly as hers did.”

Certainly, I’m not bringing this up because I want to minimize Malala’s story, her experience, or her work in writing this memoir. As a journalist, I’m just fascinated by the idea of being hired to adopt another person’s voice and help them convey their story in what you hope will seem like their words – and how having a ghostwriter shapes the story a person is trying to tell.

I also wonder about the publishing decision to hire a ghostwriter to assist with a memoir, rather than hiring someone to write a researched biography of that person. Is there the assumption that people would rather hear a story “straight from the source” than through an interpreter? The articles I read suggested as much – celebrities get book contracts because their names can sell a book, but many need an assist to put together something worth reading.

Would this book be different if Lamb had written a “straight” biography of Malala and her family? I think so. Part of what makes the memoir effective is how poised yet childlike Malala is in the stories she tells. And I don’t think you can attribute that poise to Lamb – Malala was an experienced public speaker before she was shot, and has continued to exude confidence and warmth in her appearances since. But without Lamb’s assistance, I don’t think we as readers would have the chance to hear from her – writing a book like this is not something a 16-year-old girl recovering from an assassination attempt would have been able to do alone.

That said, I can’t wait to read a book straight from Malala herself as she continues her work as an activist for education around the world.

For some other thoughts on ghostwriting, I recommend these articles:

And with that, I just want to thank everyone so much for your participation in Nonfiction November this year. If you have any suggestions for 2016, please leave them in the comments or e-mail to any one of the cohosts — we’re always looking for ideas and hope we can continue this fun event next year.


currently november 22 2015.jpg

Briefly | Last weekend I was in the Twin Cities doing some volunteering and didn’t have it in me to put a post together. This week has been pretty normal, but it felt like I was working a ton (a couple evening meetings coupled with a couple earlier-than-normal mornings will do that).

Eating and Drinking | Cranberry orange black tea and a giant chocolate chip muffin, but I’m thinking about the egg/bacon/biscuit sandwich I had last weekend at Butter Bakery Cafe. SO GOOD.

Reading | My reading has continued at a snails pace. Since I last checked in, I’ve finished Dear Mr. You by Mary Louise Parker. I’m still (slowly) reading Re Jane by Patricia Park, and I hope to finish I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates today or tomorrow.

Watching | I suspect the reason reading is still slow is because there’s been a lot of watching going on around here. I’m done with five episodes of the BBC Wolf Hall adaptation, and I watched a little bit of Jessica Jones on Netflix. We also did a Mockingjay double feature last night, catching Part 1 at home and heading to the theater for Part 2. Mini Reviews: Wolf Hall is more accurate and less fun than The TudorsJessica Jones seems fun, but I haven’t hit the dark parts yet. Mockingjay Part 2 is a well-done adaptation, but man, that book is such a downer.

Cooking | The first winter-y weekend of the year calls for a pot roast in the crock pot. I’m thinking about trying Budget Bytes’ Sweet Potato Corn Bread as a side.

Blogging | For week two of Nonfiction November, I wrote about books on science and community. For week three, I wrote about some online essays that I think are doing cool things with the format. I also wrote about Sarah Vowell’s Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.

Promoting | Two fun posts this week: How to Hygge (Or: 29 Ways to Actually Enjoy Winter) by Sarah Von Bargen at Yes and Yes and How Hamilton Uses History by Joanne B. Freeman at Slate.

Hating | Winter is here? We didn’t get the snow that much of Wisconsin and Illinois did, but our warm fall has finally come back to reality. Yesterday we pulled out the flannel sheets and I found my electric blanket. I’m trying to embrace the season changing.

Loving | Elect Hamilton, a genius Tumblr from our own Shannon (River City Reading) and April (The Steadfast Reader). It is perfect.

Loving II | Phil Klay, author of the short story collection Redeployment, wrote an eloquent response to the total craziness going on related to Syrian refugees. The most important: “But it’s only during frightening times when you get to find out if your country really deserves to call itself the ‘home of the brave.'”

Avoiding | I am woefully behind on blog comments… I don’t even want to look.


Anticipating | The Vikings play the Packers in a big game later this afternoon. Even if the Vikings lose — which I always expect that they will — it should be a fun match up.

Happy Sunday everyone! What are you reading today?


Nonfiction November 2015I have to admit, dear readers, that I struggled with this week’s prompt for Nonfiction November. Our host this week is Rebecca (I’m Lost In Books), and our topic is nontraditional nonfiction:

Nontraditional Nonfiction: This week we will be focusing on the nontraditional side of reading nonfiction. Nonfiction comes in many forms. There are the traditional hardcover or paperback print books, of course, but then you also have e-books, audiobooks, illustrated and graphic nonfiction, oversized folios, miniatures, internet publishing, and enhanced books complete with artifacts. So many choices! Do you find yourself drawn to or away from nontraditional nonfiction? Do you enjoy some nontraditional formats, but not others? Perhaps you have recommendations for readers who want to dive into nontraditional formats. We want to hear all about it this week!  

I originally wanted to write about nonfiction comic books, but quickly realized I haven’t read nearly enough of them to write anything interesting. So instead I’m going to turn to a form of nonfiction I’m pretty familiar with, essays.

The essay is one of the earliest and most familiar forms of nonfiction, but the advances of online journalism have pushed the noble essay in some interesting new directions. I wrote about this once back in 2012, which means it’s certainly time for an update. Here are a few others that I recommend:

  • Navigating Love and Autism by Amy Harmon (New York Times) — I read this piece back in journalism school and was just stunned by it. By today’s standards, the multimedia elements are pretty simple, but they’re still extremely effective.
  • Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek by John Branch (New York Times) — This piece is about a 2012 avalanche at Tunnel Creek. If I remember correctly, it was one early example of how how to incorporate other interactive elements besides video into the essay format online. You can read it online, or purchase the Kindle edition.
  • The Black Family in the Age of Incarceration by Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Atlantic) — This really excellent piece is about the impact mandatory minimums and the war on drugs have had on, specifically, black families. I love the way the essay uses footnotes and annotations to add to the piece.
  • Valal Morghulis (All Men Must Die) by Shelly Tan and Alberto Cuadra (Washington Post) — This is the most non-traditional piece of the bunch, an interactive infographic explaining all 456 deaths in the first four seasons of Game of Thrones on HBO. It’s super easy to get lost in this one. And, duh, spoilers abound.

Programming Notes

  • This week’s host is Rebecca (I’m Lost In Books), so make sure to visit her blog to link up your post for the week.
  • If you’re talking about Nonfiction November on Twitter, please use the hashtag #nonficnov for your posts so we can find them. The hashtag seems a little crowded this year, but we’ll just make it work.
  • Our topic next week is our readalong of I Am Malala hosted by Katie (Doing Dewey). Katie will have some questions posted, as well as a place to link up other posts on the book.

Listening to HAMILTON, Reading LAFAYETTE

lafayette in the somewhat united states by sarah vowelI’m not sure I would have gotten to reading Sarah Vowell’s newest book, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, if I haven’t started listening to the soundtrack for Hamilton just a couple weeks ago.

For those who don’t know, Hamilton is a Broadway musical about the life and times of Alexander Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda. It sounds rather crazy, I know, but it’s totally excellent (and you can listen to it several places online). The Marquis de Lafayette, a teenage Frenchman who became a well-loved general in the Revolutionary War, is introduced in the second song of the show with this verse:

Oui oui, mon ami, je m’appelle Lafayette!
The Lancelot of the revolutionary set!
I came from afar just to say “Bonsoir!”
Tell the King “Casse toi!” Who’s the best?
C’est moi!

That just struck me as so hilarious that I decided I wanted to learn more about this guy immediately. Although Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is about Lafayette, it’s really a broader look at how the ideals of the American Revolution mesh (or, in lots of cases, are in contrast) with the reality of fighting in the Revolutionary War. It’s more ambitious than a simple biography, but I think that makes it an even better match with Hamilton‘s critique and revisiting of the Founding Fathers.

There are two things I love about Sarah Vowell as a writer and historian. First, she’s clearly fond of our Founding Fathers and other major historical figures, but she’s not afraid to point out where they messed up or areas in their lives where they demonstrated hypocrisy. It’s disingenuous to talk about, say, Thomas Jefferson, the writer of one of our favorite phrases — “all men are created equal” — and not also acknowledge that he owned slaves. The founders of our country had big ideas, but ultimately they were people and can be talked about as such without diminishing their legacy.

Vowell is so great at this. In the book, she calls the colonists “self-respecting, financially strapped terrorists” and “anti-monarchist punks,” among other affectionate names. I think that’s so funny! In another section, she makes this really apt observation about the problems at Valley Forge: 

I would like to see the calamity at Valley Forge as just the growing pains of a new nation. It has been a long time since the men and women serving in the armed forces of the world’s only superpower went naked because some crooked townies in upstate New York filched their uniforms. But there’s still this combination of government ineptitude, shortsightedness, stinginess, corruption and neglect that affected the Continentals before, during and after Valley Forge that twenty-first century Americans are not entirely unfamiliar with.

That also leads me into the second thing I love about Vowell: she’s wonderful at showing the way history can be a conversation between the past and present. Most of her books pull together historical events with our present day memory of those events through things like museums, monuments and historical reenactments. It’s a really interesting way to both learn about particular moments and look at how our popular conception of them has changed.

Lafayette is actually a great example of this — he helped forge an alliance with France that enabled the United States to win the Revolutionary War. But not so long ago, the United States Congress renamed “French Fries” to “Freedom Fries” and, at least as I recall my history classes, works to overlook that significant contribution. Vowell spends a bit of time on this in the book, which I thought was really interesting.

These features of Vowell’s writing are also some of what I love best about Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda clearly admires and respects Alexander Hamilton and many of the other Founding Fathers — why else make an entire musical about the American Revolution? But the musical points out their mistakes and flaws, often in really pointed ways. And the specific casting of performers of color in the roles of our white Founding Fathers makes really fascinating echoes between America of the past and America of the present. It’s remarkable.

So there you have it, I have Hamilton to thanks for picking up Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, and the book to thank for helping me articulate some of what I love about the musical. Get your hands on both, they’re great.